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Crazy Eight

Companies like The Side Project have a hunger to produce great theater

Eight shows. One season. All at a storefront theater. It sounds like theater from old-school Chicago, back when Steppenwolf was in Highland Park or The Factory Theater of the mid-1990s. But it’s not The Factory, and it’s not Steppenwolf. Who are these crazy people? What company is it? Where the heck does this stuff still happen and how can you get tickets?

Let me answer. It’s The Side Project Theatre Company, located in Rogers Park. Call them for tickets. It might be hard to get a seat because the theater is very, very small, but their shows are daring and fresh. So call them—right now (773-973-2150).

Companies like The Side Project have a hunger and passion to produce that outweighs all, no matter the amount of money one doesn’t have or the amount of time one desperately needs. The energy it takes to “throw all sorts of whatever up on stage and see what sticks” cannot be measured in anything but frustration, pulled muscles and afterglow. This city is the only one I’ve ever visited that has perfected the all-or-nothing format to a degree that actually works. The shows do not always “stick,” but they still get produced and often reviewed. By taking a risk with eight different shows, coupled with the talent housed the eager ensemble, The Side Project ensures at least one of the productions is bound to be a hit. Maybe all eight will be hits, or five, or two. In any case, the audience gets to see a variety of shows that include newly written plays by up-and-coming young writers and older, obscure works that mirror contemporary themes.

I found when I came to Chicago that nearly any company can follow this format and attempt to reap a few benefits. Getting a company’s name in The Reader, for example, helps promote the company, and getting the company’s name in The Reader eight times with eight different shows certainly will help folks remember who you are. It does help, however, if the company backs great promotion with a great product. I remember attending a mediocre show years ago at a now defunct theater. During intermission I was looking over the program and listed within was the rest of their season of five more mediocre shows. Play selection gives the audience a window into style and substance, and a company must be keenly aware of this, especially if the company is producing a super-multi-show season. At The Side Project, I may see a show and for one reason or another get on board. Afterwards, however, I’ll still be excited to see the next show because of the diversity of season selection and the ideas presented in the descriptions of future shows. I may love the show and then skip one that I may not be as interested in seeing. This doesn’t mean I’m going to write the company off. Instead, I trust that whatever show I see next at that theater has a chance to be not only good, but also different. Careful season selection reveals intelligence behind the scenes, an intelligence that bleeds into the process of show creation. The Side Project’s ensemble attacks each new show with the same insight and passion as the one before. I know if I enter their theater, the folks who are there—be it performers, box office manager or booth operator—care.

It takes this kind of caring to produce exceptional theater. Risk-taking is engaging theater’s bread-and-butter, and risks always seem to begin with those who have the least to lose. Worthwhile small Chicago theater companies exist to not only showcase the work of those involved, but to also move the art form forward. There can be a sense that the larger venues have given up some of the spirit to challenge and tend to focus on the bottom line and audience growth, so it’s up to the little theaters to do the heavy lifting. This city’s new talent—actors, writers, directors and designers—usually discover their footholds within the lower depths. These daring venues give new artists a chance to experiment and create without pressure. The Side Project’s stage is small, but certainly big enough to generate a multitude of electrifying ideas, expressions and insights, eight plays at a time.

Published: January 28, 2007
Issue: Winter 2007